Greta Gerwig’s new film Barbie opens with a humorous homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead of encountering a mysterious black monolith, the young girls in Gerwig’s film discover a towering Barbie doll, dressed iconically in cat eye sunglasses and a black and white swimsuit. Kubrick said his monolith represented an unknowable, powerful alien force that allowed viewers to imagine possibilities beyond what cinema could show. For generations of girls who faced restrictions in careers, finances, and identity, Barbie was a similar canvas on which to unleash their imagination and envision futures beyond prescribed gender roles.
When Ruth Handler invented Barbie in 1959, she gave young girls something groundbreaking – a doll that allowed them to imagine adult lives and careers that were previously unthinkable for women. Unlike baby dolls that rehearsed motherhood, Barbie empowered girls to envision futures where they could be doctors, astronauts, or CEOs. She represented female autonomy and financial independence, letting girls role-play scenarios where they didn’t need a man’s permission.
While Barbie conveyed a limiting, male-defined view of beauty, she was an aspirational figure who expanded girls’ dreams beyond the domestic sphere. For many, Barbie was their first taste of imagining a future where they could pursue their ambitions and define womanhood on their own terms – a radical notion in her era. Handler’s creation gave girls a canvas to envision and rehearse independence at a time when those options seemed unattainable in reality.
In Greta Gerwig’s Barbie film, the doll’s dreamworld represents an aspirational vision of gender equality. It depicts a society where women can hold the highest offices, dominate male-centric fields like construction, and fully express their femininity without judgment or objectification.
Barbie enjoys traditionally “girly” pursuits like dance parties in glitzy outfits, yet faces no unwanted male advances from Ken. She inhabits a world free of systemic sexism where women aren’t constrained by double standards or limited by stereotypes. Her childhood lens envisions adulthood as a boundless opportunity without glass ceilings, casting couches, or closed doors.
Through Barbie, Gerwig creates an optimistic alternate reality where girls grow up to be whatever they want. It captures the unlimited potential of childhood imagination, where equality seems attainable and gender barriers non-existent. The film brings Barbie’s aspirational ethos to life, portraying a utopia of women’s empowerment.
Once Barbie is viewed through an adult lens rather than a child’s, problems arise. To children, Barbie sparks imaginative play, but to adults, she symbolizes societal limitations on women that feminists have fought against.
In the film, when the mother Gloria starts playing with a Barbie as she struggles with midlife crises, the universe’s fabric tears. Dolls are meant for children’s minds only. Gloria projects her own insecurities onto Barbie, dressing her in “Full Body Cellulite” and “Irrepressible Thoughts of Death.” Because an adult is playing, Margot Robbie’s Barbie likewise develops cellulite and existential angst.
Barbie was created for carefree childhood fun, not burdened adult projections. When adults interact with Barbie, they can’t help but see her through the lens of real-world gender roles and pressures women face. This clashes with Barbie’s purpose as an imaginative toy. The film shows what happens when adult concerns intrude into Barbie’s world – her cheery oblivion becomes troubled.
When Barbie ventures into the real world, she confronts adult problems absent in her childhood toy domain. Catcalling men sexually objectifies her, making her feel unsafe. Construction workers also leer at her, deflating her fantasy that male friends are always supportive. She cleverly defuses their ogling by stating she lacks genitalia, an absurdist idea that flips power dynamics.
Barbie also sees an ageing woman for the first time, examining her with awe and calling her beautiful. Never having faced societal beauty standards, Barbie appreciates women’s looks without judgment.
This openness could aid Barbie if she becomes human, though that choice seems odd given her idyllic world. Like Gloria’s daughter leaving childhood, Barbie would enter womanhood’s contradictions – pressure to be forever young and “perfect” while denying one’s needs.
But Barbie’s innate respect for women could anchor her. She lacks adult baggage about beauty and relationships. Though gaining humanity has pitfalls, Barbie’s childhood wisdom could help her navigate grown-up gender constraints through an unjaded lens. Her innocence becomes a strength.
Becoming a woman, despite continuing struggles, also confers a sense of community and power. Barbie witnesses female bonds and wisdom that society undervalues. She desires to join this sisterhood defined by shared experiences like menstruation, childbirth, and menopause.
Womanhood means fighting for reproductive autonomy, enduring objectification, and finding solace in female friendships. To Gerwig, Ruth, and Barbie herself, being a woman is a superpower.
Barbie chooses humanity to become the subject shaping her story, not just an object for others’ enjoyment. She wants the agency and authorship Ruth gave girls through her doll.
As Barbara Handler, Barbie’s first act is visiting the gynaecologist – embracing womanhood’s physical essence. She tends to this superpower source, the body’s reproductive capacities that make female camaraderie so profound. Despite hardships, Barbie sees becoming a woman as accessing life’s most meaningful bonds.